PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Ernie Els might as well be doing cartwheels down the fairways at Innisbrook or walking across the water hazards. That is the kind of euphoria he still feels today, and it has nothing to do with his golf game.
When Els was on hand Monday to watch Rickie Fowler make a hole-in-one, it wasn't simply elation for a fellow pro making an ace.
For Els, it was a very real, very emotional result that meant a $1 million gift to his foundation, Els for Autism.
"It's like a miracle,'' Els said.
The Big Easy appeared on the brink of tears talking about it before the start of the Valspar Championship, where the 46-year-old Hall of Famer is playing this week.
"It makes a huge impact immediately,'' he said. "It's brilliant.''
Els and his wife, Liezl, have an autistic son, Ben, 13, who upon learning of his condition sought to do something about it for himself and others. The family founded Els for Autism in 2009 and has been tirelessly fundraising since.
They moved from their base near London to West Palm Beach, Florida, to seek better schooling and medical care, and also to launch the foundation, which last year opened its Center of Excellence.
"Austism hits families hard and I'll be fighting for the rest of my life to try and help others in the same situation,'' Els said on his website.
By now you've probably seen the video of Fowler's hole-in-one at Old Palm Golf Club, site of an annual invitation-only pro-am that featured 23 pros. Among them were Jack Nicklaus, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Nick Price, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Luke Donald -- whose wedge Fowler used to make the ace.
Each year after the event, there is a hole-in-one contest sponsored by SAP and Ketel One. Each pro takes a crack at the 110-yard target, and Els noticed that Fowler had yet to take his turn. Nobody had ever made an ace in the event's history.
"I've got the microphone,'' Els said. "Luke Donald shoves a wedge in his hand. Thomas Aiken shoves a golf ball in his hand, comes up there. I'm like 'Where's those ankle huggers?'"
Els was poking fun at a recent Fowler fashion choice: his high-top golf shoes.
Then Fowler holed the shot.
"I think McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen were the first to him,'' Els said. "I obviously wanted to toss him around. It's like a miracle.''
Els said the event itself raised $820,000 for the foundation through the various entry fees. But it got better.
After Fowler's ace and the $1 million gift to the foundation, Els' longtime friend and frequent golf partner Johann Rupert matched Fowler's feat with a $1 million gift. Rupert is a South African billionaire who has played with Els in the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland on a number of occasions.
And just like that, further expansion plans could commence. Els said his board of directors at the foundation on Tuesday decided the group could go ahead with plans to build an upper school on the 27-acre property in Jupiter, Florida.
A lower school is already completed at the Center of Excellence, with a synthetic golf course. There are long-range plans for the upper school with a pool, gym and track and field facilities. Monday's windfall just sped up those plans.
"In the last five years, we've really got a good flow going in our fundraising,'' said Els, whose foundation conducts fundraising golf tournaments across the country throughout the year. "But [it's] tough to ask the same people for money. It's tough to reinvent the way you do these things.''
Els said the publicity from Fowler's ace has gone beyond anything he could have expected.
"He's one of the hottest guys in sport right now,'' Els said. "Everybody loves Rickie. He makes the shot. He's got such a big following in any case. Scott Van Pelt talked about it on SportsCenter. It was on Golf Channel. Because he's such a hot property, he's the man at the moment. It fanned the flames. He's my hero.''
Els has traveled the world, winning four major championships and more than 60 international titles. But what happened Monday, Els said, was beyond any of those accomplishments, almost magical.
"It had to be,'' Els said. "That's the first thing Liezl said. 'I think the hand [of God] came down today.' It's kind of one of those things. You've got to agree with her. These things happen maybe once in 10 years. It doesn't really happen. It was really amazing.''